The accidental cult hero: Shake Shack opens in Philadelphia

Posted: June 07, 2012

Despite what Danny Meyer has done in fine dining — his Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants are among America’s most honored destinations — his legacy probably will be a fast-food chain begun by accident.

It’s Shake Shack, whose first Philadelphia location opened this week at 20th and Sansom Streets. This is the 15th location, counting seasonal stands at ballparks and new outposts in Dubai and Kuwait. The interior is built for speed and ecology, with lots of reclaimed wood; tables are made from heart pine taken from an old bowling alley.

Eight years after it was launched as a modest kiosk in a Manhattan park, Shake Shack has a cult status — a sort of East Coast In-N-Out Burger. Photos of wax-paper-enveloped Shack burgers, crinkle-cut fries napped in cheese sauce, and paper cups full of frozen custard fill the Internet. News of impending openings is a hot commodity, ranking among the most-viewed posts on food blogs. The chain’s Facebook page has more than 37,000 likes.

And the lines.

Lawyers, tourists, office and construction workers, students, retirees, stockbrokers, white-collar, blue-collar — shortly before opening at any Shack on any given day, a cross-section of society begins milling outside while employees finish their staff meal-slash-meeting in time to unlock the door at 11 a.m. sharp. By noon in nice weather, the line to buy burgers, fries, hot dogs, shakes, and the custards (known as concretes) — all made to order — snakes from inside the store out the door. One loyalist created Shack HQ, a free iPhone app to allow people to monitor the line at the original location in Madison Square Park. And no one — not even Meyer’s four children — may cut the line. No reservations, no holding tables.

The line is part of the experience, Meyer likes to say. People are pack animals, waiting together for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Meyer, who spent a career planning such landmarks as Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Cafe, and Eleven Madison Park, said Shake Shack was created by accident.

Twelve years ago, Meyer was helping the Madison Square Park Conservancy, which he cofounded, raise money to beautify the park, between Fifth and Madison Avenues, 23d and 26th Streets. The park has a collection of sculpture, so the conservancy held an art installation.

An artist created a piece called I Heart Taxis — two cabs on stilts — with a real hot dog stand decorated to look like a taxi set up next to it.

Meyer volunteered Eleven Madison Park to make and sell hot dogs. He brought in coat-check people — usually idle until the fall — to work the stand in 2001. It was a hit but lost $7,500, Meyer said. The next year, the conservancy asked for the cart to return, sans taxi decor. It did better — losing only $5,000. The third summer, it made $7,500. Then the conservancy asked for a permanent kiosk. Union Square Hospitality Group won the contract.

But what to serve? The cart’s menu was hot dogs, chips, lemonade, and Rice Krispies Treats.

Though he is every bit the New Yorker, Meyer, 54, is foremost a Midwesterner, having grown up in St Louis. He dipped into his past and came up with a roadside custard stand.

"The automobile was a symbol of liberation, which is not the case in New York," he said in an interview at the original Shake Shack last week as a line of people began building before the stand’s opening.

"Way before we knew fast food, what we knew was a stand or a custard place. The parking lot was really a piazza of sorts for us. Here [in New York] we have this park. We don’t have an automobile culture. What if the park of today could be the parking lot of yesterday? And what if we could recognize that what fast food did was take that automobile experience and hijack it, because fast food became a method not to bring people together with their cars but to use their cars to get more calories, more quickly and more cheaply. What if we could both turn back the clock and turn it forward? Turn it back to how people once used the roadside stand but turn it forward in terms of quality and what we know about sourcing and hospitality."

Meyer wrote the book on hospitality. Literally.

Setting the Table, published in 2006, is considered a must-read among restaurant managers; his philosophy, known as enlightened hospitality, exalts his employees, whom he hires and promotes based on their "HQ," or hospitality quotient. Meyer has said that customers return to a restaurant and make it their own not so much because of the food but because of hospitality. Each month, Shake Shack distributes 1 percent of gross sales to the hourly employees as a bonus.

Though the Shake Shack at Madison Square Park got more than its share of lines and publicity from its 2004 opening, Meyer resisted the idea of opening another.

"The line kept getting longer every year, but the DNA of our company was doing one-of-a-kind restaurants," Meyer said. "And that was enough for us. People kept saying, ‘You have to do this again. We want one in our neighborhood.’ We kept saying, ‘Let’s plant our roots deeper, so we develop souls so we really understand this business.’ "

Then, Meyer said, "We said maybe if we open a second one, we could reduce the length of the line here."

Finally, the second opened on the Upper West Side in 2008.

"The opposite thing took place," said Shake Shack chief executive Randy Garutti: "We opened a second one and the line got longer. And we opened a third one and the line got longer."

Meyer had gotten a taste of the numbers. The fast-food sector has far higher profit margins than fine dining. That’s one reason Jose Garces has a taco truck, Wolfgang Puck sells salads at the mall, Georges Perrier bakes croissants, and Bobby Flay and Stephen Starr sling burgers. By some estimates, each of the six Shake Shacks in New York City feeds about 1,000 people a day. At $10 a head for simply a burger and a soft drink, that would be more than $3.5 million a year in revenue — and no chefs, maîtres d’, or linen rental to eat into that.

The first Shack is a kiosk with a facade designed to evoke the Flatiron Building across the street; the others, including spots in Miami Beach, Washington, D.C., and Westport, Conn., are restaurants. During the creation of subsequent locations, "we tried to do everything in our power to design the original roadside burger stand inside the sit-down feel," Garutti said. "Every Shack feels like the original kiosk in the park — that was somehow planned. It’s why we always have green elements to our designs to reflect our birthplace in a park." Dog treats are sold, too.

Garutti said Philadelphia was identified for a Shack because of the city’s mix of business, cultural institutions, universities, history, and proximity to New York City. Finding the spot, previously an adult bookstore and dry cleaner’s three blocks from Rittenhouse Square, took years.

Union Square Hospitality applies its white-tablecloth corporate ethos to Shake Shack. Garutti is particularly proud that staff meals are eaten as a group before opening; fast-food companies typically allow employee meals only during breaks.

Shack’s food sourcing reflects fine dining as well. "We were developing the chocolate shake," said Garutti. "We asked, ‘What would the pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern use?’ " Beef, a proprietary blend of sirloin, chuck, and brisket, comes from butcher-to-the-stars Pat LaFrieda. Vienna Beef in Chicago supplies the hot dogs, Usinger’s in Milwaukee the brats. In each city, Shack incorporates local ingredients — in Philadelphia, La Colombe coffee and Termini Bros. cannoli shells are used in the signature "concrete" desserts.

"We’re in a day and age when people have learned that really well-sourced ingredients, prepared properly, taste better," Meyer said. "Consumers are demanding that wherever they go. Restaurateurs are realizing that."

Besides adding local flavor to menus, the company partners with local charities. In Philadelphia, the Mural Arts Program will get 5 percent of sales of the "Center City" concrete dessert. Shake Shack just wrapped up a program for Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign that allowed customers to pay $2 for a coupon good for a $5 shake. Those $2 purchases translated into a $130,000 donation.

Besides the Philadelphia shop, Union Square plans to open five more Shacks this year. "What’s important to us is not the pace of growth or the number of units," Garutti said. "We don’t speak in those terms. We talk about what great community can we be a part of. What community is asking for a Shack? How can our other restaurants get busier and better in the process of opening another Shack? When will we have developed enough great leaders and team members to be ready to lead another Shack? When we can do all those things, we’ll open another one."

Contact Michael Klein at mklein@philly.com.

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